The American Civil War, one day at a time

The New York Times has just launched a new blog, Disunion, which is re-telling the American Civil War in real time. I’ve been wanting, even expecting, more real-time historical accounts of events since starting The Diary of Samuel Pepys and it’s great to see such a high-profile example.

I’ve thought for a while that historical wars would be good candidates for this daily online recounting, for several reasons:

  • Wars are finite. If you’re starting a big project, you want to know exactly what you’re taking on, not only for the budget, but for your own sanity. It also provides a built-in narrative structure for the audience.

  • Wars are well documented. For any war you’re likely to re-tell, you’ll have more than enough material. The problem will be working out what to use, not finding enough.

  • Wars are worth re-telling. We’re taught a lot about parts of important wars, but it’s hard to get a sense of what that means on the scale of day-to-day life. We learn about the big events, without much sense of how they fit together, or what else was happening at the same time.

But re-telling a war in any worthwhile way is a big undertaking, so hats off to the New York Times for giving this a go. The posts don’t, so far, attempt to tell the story of the war from specific historical viewpoints, but each day’s entry is written looking back, by a modern-day expert. Good stuff.

Slightly oddly, the Disunion posts are mixed up among the rest of the Opinionator Blog, which seems to be a place where many series and authors are grouped together. This means the next/previous links on the blog posts don’t take you to the next/previous Disunion posts, only the next/previous within the whole Opinionator section, which is a little jarring.

It would also be lovely if Disunion had its own appearance and accompanying assets. Maybe, though, there are financial, technical or political constraints preventing separating it out, or maybe these are just early days. Something it would be great to see as things develop, unique to Disunion, is more background information. Maps are the obvious one — show me where events happened in relation to each other and the modern world.

It’s also a huge shame the blog posts don’t feature many links. Come on, this is the Web! There are many historical references that don’t mean much to me, and adding links to Wikipedia would transform these accounts as educational experiences. The Times is able to link to its own archive of stories though (eg) which is rather special.

Finally, in the list of quibbles, my heart sank a little that the RSS feed only contains a sentence for each post, but I guess that’s annoyingly common for commercial entities such as this site.

I do, however, like the comments. I wasn’t aware of the Times’ system of picking out “highlighted” comments into a different list. This seems a good balance — there’s no need for most readers to wade through the 100+ comments each day to find the interesting nuggets. Smashing.

So, quibbles aside, a grand start by the New York Times, and it leaves plenty more for other organisations to do in the future, to bring to life other historical events.

Comments

  • Have you seen @ukwarcabinet, which is run by The National Archive. I’ve been a massive fan since it’s launch. To me, it has a similar effect on the mind as howbigreally.com, bringing distant scenes into the current world around you. It helps you adjust the bigger picture, the assumptions that don’t seem important enough for anyone to tell you or for you to question yourself.

    It may seem odd, but in my head, simply due to a lack of self questioning, the weather was always cold and bleak during WW2. No-one had ever explicitly said “Because it was June, it was a lovely sunny day” when describing the country gathering around their radios to hear “We will fight on the beaches”. But as the @ukwarcabinet stream is exactly 70 years on, that assumption and others were shifted underneath the main facts as I sat in the BRIG looking out on a calm nice day.

    Unrelated, due to today’s choice between pretty arbitrary news narratives, this one gives a choice where you can see the headlines and read the classified insider documents as well.

    Anyway, slow day brain dump. Morning.

  • Morning. I had a look at @ukwarcabinet yesterday, after @blech pointed me at it. It seems to require clicking a link, adding a PDF to your shopping basket, going to the checkout, giving your email address, and then downloading the PDF… which seemed a little sub-optimal. Good initial idea though.

2 Nov 2010 at Twitter

  • 04:57pm: An hour on the phone to the IRS to ask what seemed a simple question. Answer: I don't know, we'll have to get back to you. Sad face.
  • 06:08pm: Imagining "That's no moon!" and "That's not a pillow!" being reversed. Not sure it works, but it amuses me.
  • 06:16pm: Oh! When did iTunes smart playlist rules introduce sub-clauses of All/Any sets? Lovely.

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